I’m intrigued by Blake Ostler’s 1987 paper “the book of Mormon as a Modern Expansion of an Ancient Source.” Ostler explores a medley of methodological approaches to the Book of Mormon, including source-, motif-, and form-criticism. He argues that the Book of Mormon can neither be explained as a nineteenth-century invention, nor as an exact equivalent to some ancient document from the plates. He suggests instead that Joseph Smith did have an ancient manuscript which he was inspired to translate, be he freely added his own material to the text as part of a “creative co-participation” (109).
As Ostler put it: “if the expansion theory of the Book of Mormon is correct, then the vast majority of theories, both pro and con, have assumed far too much by simply pointing to parallels” (79). His paper does offer an alternative to the polarizing “parallelomania.” In effect, both sides win. However, each party has to suffer some capitulations in order to accommodate Ostler’s theory.
For example, I don’t know of many (any) critical scholars outside of the church who would accept the common LDS belief shared by Ostler that real plates actually existed containing an ancient Christian document. Yet I suspect that Ostler did not intend his theory to be primarily for non-LDS critical scholars. Rather, it seems to be an apologia for fundamental Mormon beliefs – one which also incorperates principles of modern critical scholarship.
Perhaps the more important questions, then, involve the loss suffered by faithful Mormons who espouse Ostler’s theory: what can be said of a text that is not uniformly translated from an ancient source? Is it really possible to differentiate between Joseph Smith and the ancient authors? Finally, why would God make the revelatory process of translation so vague as to allow Joseph Smith to add his own glosses to the “most correct book on earth?” Kevin Barney has elaborated a bit on Ostler’s theory (p. 142 f), as I’m sure others have. Nevertheless, I find myself questioning the theological implications of a document that was ostensibly preserved by prophets, recovered through the help of divine agents, accompanied by ancient instruments, only to be loosely translated.